It's true that I wish Alex were dead. But could I actually kill him?
It's a question that's been on my mind frequently since Alex came back into my life. Alex is my oldest daughter's goldfish. Our family recently spent a year in Massachusetts while I was on sabbatical, and the nicest part of the sojourn was leaving Alex behind: I decided he wouldn't fit in our two-bedroom apartment, so we stuck him with, er, consigned him to the care of our neighbor, Charlie, and his family.
For 10 glorious months I was free of the annoying and constant responsibilities that come with caring for Alex.
Alex was not something we'd asked for. He was the goody-bag prize at a birthday party my daughter Gwyneth attended three years ago. The theme of the party was "the ocean" and every guest left not with the traditional pile of plastic crap (which is what we give out), but with a leaky bag containing a real live goldfish.
Yes, I was annoyed. I like this family but it's more than a little presumptuous to make a gift of a living being. My daughter of course was delighted: finally, a pet. I didn't think it would be too much of a problem, though, because I didn't really expect Alex to live. He was a pet store feeder fish, a weak, fraying link on the food chain, bred to be fed to something more interesting. Small and dingy, he looked like a slice of carrot left too long in the refrigerator. Entrusted with a life, Gwyneth would learn about death.
We happened coincidentally to already have a small, brand-new fish tank, a gift from my father, who evidently thinks his granddaughter's life cannot be complete unless there's something beneath her in our household's pecking order. I set up the filter, dumped in the gravel, poured in the water, plopped in Alex and started the deathwatch.
Whereupon Alex blossomed. Unfamiliar with fish metabolism, I fed him three times a day. Before long he'd gained so much weight that he had difficulty turning around in his cylindrical tank. The people at the pet store said I really only needed to feed him twice a day, or once even. But by this point Alex had blimped out to something more suitable for an ornamental pond.
I bought another tank, a bigger tank. And I got used to the idea that Alex was going to be around for a while.
Over the years, Alex has brought me literally minutes of enjoyment. Yes, I like to watch him swim in the gin-clear water of his tank after I clean it. But then I notice the tiny, twisting Cheeto floating in the water and I am reminded that Alex is little more than a machine by which TetraFin Goldfish Flakes are rendered into poop.
And Alex is a prodigious pooper, I'll give him that. The gravel, the filter, the tiny burbling stone that discharges bubbles into the water: Everything gains an orangy, TetraFin hue as a result of Alex's alimentary canal. Sometimes he'll do what I like to think of as his Portuguese man-of-war impersonation. He'll swim along trailing a length of poop that looks like a string of sausages.
What of my daughter, Alex's putative owner? She loves him as much as anyone can love a fish, but realizes that he lacks a certain something in the gratification department. At 8 she's too young to do the more onerous parts of the maintenance, the wholesale water replacement and the vacuuming up of golden fish crap.
She worries about his well-being, though. When she accidentally dumped half a can of fish food into his tank not long after I'd cleaned it, she worried that he would overeat and kill himself. "Don't worry," I wanted to tell her. "You'd have to dump a bag of Sakrete in there to kill him."
During last winter's ice storm, the power in our neighborhood was off for three days. Charlie reports that as the temperature dropped, his family huddled together upstairs. They thought that Alex, alone in the freezing basement, was a goner for sure (and, indeed, many saltwater fish perished in the Great Freeze of '99). But Alex survived, kept warm, no doubt, by an insulating layer of blubber.
My aquarium instruction booklet is full of warnings on how to care for fish: Don't use pure tap water; neutralize dangerous chemicals with special drops; don't drop fish unprepared into the water, instead float them in glass jars or water-filled bags; don't use soaps when cleaning the tank. In Alex's early days I gave him such pampered treatment. Now I'm not so careful. I haven't yet taken to rinsing his tank with naphtha, but I fear even that wouldn't slow him down.
And it always seems like tank-cleaning time at the Kelly house. Or, rather, I'm so resentful of Alex that I neglect the frequent but simple prophylaxis of his tank, preferring for masochistic reasons not to change out a third of the water every week but instead to wait a month or more, until the water is the color of Tang and I must drain the whole thing, railing in the basement, Alex thrashing like Shamu in a Tupperware container.
And then I'm finally done and the water is crystal-clear and I drop Alex back in and he ripples his brilliant tail fin like a spinnaker catching the breeze. I switch on the aquarium light and the multicolored gravel on the bottom glows like a bed of jewels. And the whole scene looks quite beautiful.
And then Alex poops, and my daughter hands me a book she checked out from the library that, among other amazing records, says that the oldest goldfish in the world lived to be 41.